Thomas Parke Hughes

"Cold War Systems Builders: Managing a Military-Industrial Complex"

September 18, 1998

by David Jardini
   

On September 18, 1998, the Carnegie Mellon University Colloquium on Cold War Science and Technology was honored to host Thomas Parke Hughes, one of the founders of the field of history of technology. Hughes was formerly the Mellon Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He is presently a visiting distinguished lecturer in the engineering college at MIT. Hughes is a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences and has received numerous other awards for his scholarship and achievements in the history of technology.

Hughes's lecture drew from and elaborated upon the material presented in the third chapter of his new book, Rescuing Prometheus, which was published in August 1998. Rescuing Prometheus argues that a new style for managing the creation of large-scale systems emerged in the United States during the period 1950-1970, that this style is the most distinctive aspect of post-World War II American technological development, and that it is still discernible today in the management of large-scale technological projects. The new style Hughes identifies was based on the "systems approach" and had its genesis in what scholars often refer to as the "military-industrial-university complex." Hughes finds that balanced histories showing both the successes and failures of the military-industrial-university complex remain rare despite growing evidence that dramatic technological and scientific gains were achieved during this period. Hughes points out the power of the Cold War rivalry as a motivating force for individual scientists, engineers, and social scientists, and he argues that in executing vastly complex technological projects these individuals forged a new style for creating technological systems. Although Rescuing Prometheus explores as case studies a series of technological projects, such as the SAGE air defense network, the Atlas missile program, and the ARPANET, Hughes's book is fundamentally about the management techniques characterizing the creation of these enormously complex technological systems.

To illustrate the emergence of the new management style, Dr. Hughes focused his talk on the history of the U.S. Air Force's Atlas missile project and, to a lesser extent, the Navy's Polaris missile development project. The Atlas project started in 1954 and soon evolved into the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) project. By 1957, the ICBM project involved 17 principal contractors, 200 subcontractors, and employed a workforce of over 70,000. Hughes argues that systems builders embedded in the U.S. military-industrial-university complex created a new management style in order to execute the ICBM project. In part, a new management style was required to overcome the "conservative momentum" or inertia that had restrained missile development in the U.S. Air Force prior to 1954. The source of this inertia was the "manned aircraft culture" which dominated the Air Force and imposed conservative momentum on the development of unmanned missiles. Traditionally, Air Force development projects had been handled under the "prime contractor" system, in which the Air Force would select a contractor, usually an airframe producer, to manage subcontractors and execute aircraft projects. Hughes argues that the size and technological complexity of the ICBM project prohibited the employment of this traditional system, since the airframe manufacturers had neither the breadth of technical capabilities nor the systems engineering skills necessary to pull off the missile project. Furthermore, the airframe producers were too deeply embedded in the orthodox manned aircraft culture to execute a radical technological project.

Only after presented with the external threat of Soviet missile superiority, the Air Force created a dramatically different management system. First, the Air Force created the Western Development Division (WDD), a new command charged with pursuing the development of long range missiles. WDD was headed by General Bernard Schriever and staffed with a new type of Air Force officer. Schriever surrounded himself with officers who typically lacked flying experience--traditionally the sine qua non of advancement in the Air Force--but who held advanced technical degrees and were well connected with the scientific and technical communities in American academia and industry. Under Schriever's command, the WDD fostered close cooperation among Air Force, university, and industrial experts, and sponsored the creation of a new type of industrial organization--the systems engineering firm. Under the management style developed by the WDD, the systems engineering contractor replaced the prime contractor of past air projects and assumed responsibility for assembling the specialized engineering and scientific management talent needed for management of the ICBM project. Schriever tapped the newly formed Ramo-Wooldridge (R-W) Corporation to be the systems engineering/technical direction contractor and thus assume overall technical direction of the ICBM project. _Rescuing Prometheus_ follows the extension and elaboration of this new management style and the systems management techniques it yielded across the Cold War period and beyond military into large civil projects such as Boston's Central Artery and Tunnel project.

Hughes's work has important implications for what has become known as the "distortionist critique" of Cold War scientific and technological development. From the beginning of the ICBM project, Hughes finds a diverse but cohesive body of military, industrial and academic experts working in close coordination to manage and execute the project. Whereas many historians have argued that the vast military expenditures which characterized the Cold War tended to distort and subvert industrial and academic science and technology to military needs, Hughes argues that his case studies illustrate the powerful controlling influences academic and industrial players exerted on the military agenda. He argues that while military sponsorship of science and technology clearly influenced academic and industrial research and development, historians must better appreciate the dialectical nature of this relationship.

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